When I was in high school, I had a part-time job at a local pharmacy, working the evening shift from 4 PM until 11:30 and all day Sunday. It was the only store open on Sunday during the late 1950s, before the days of 24/7, or 24/6 in Israel.
One Sunday, a customer entered with a frightful face that was hard to look at. It looked like part of his face had been blown off. He had no nose, just a hole in the middle of his face where a nose was supposed to be, and his ears were deformed as well. Although his mouth was distorted, he spoke normally and I understood all of his requests. In fact, he was the best customer I had all day, for he bought gifts for his family that he would see later that day.
Many years later when I was reading Dalton Trumbo’s controversial anti-war book Johnny Got His Gun, I thought of him. I thought of him again when I heard Bob Dylan’s anti-war song “John Brown,” which is about a boy who leaves for war amid cheers and returns damaged both physically and mentally.
The classic film The Best Years of Our Lives deals with the aftermath of war and the challenge that servicemen face when they re-enter the world after their wartime experiences. The movie presents three different responses in the narratives of Fred Derry, Al Stevenson, and Homer Parish. The world has moved on, and these men come back to an unfamiliar landscape, but one to which they must adjust if they are to lead successful lives.
Fred was a captain in the Air Force, where he served valiantly to protect his fellow soldiers, but prior to the war he was a soda jerk with little education and without much of a future. Al was a sergeant who saw action in the Pacific, and he returns to an executive position at the bank for which he worked before the war. Homer was a star athlete, but lost his arms below the elbow in a ship fire. For him, the tragic legacy of the war lingers because of his physical disability. Now he has hooks instead of hands and his self-esteem has plummeted.
Homer, engaged to Wilma, feels that people see him as a freak of some kind, causing him to withdraw from Wilma. He does not want to be a burden to her, yet he loves her dearly. In a sublimely touching scene, he shows her what he has to do to manage his disability, for he cannot button his pajamas or open a door. With tenderness, Wilma buttons his pajamas and pledges her love to him. It is a happy ending to a stressful time in Homer’s life.
Jewish tradition has a special take on disabilities of all kinds. In the Talmud, there is a strange story about an extremely ugly person. The Talmud recounts that Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar encountered this man; and when the ugly man extended a greeting to him, Rabbi Shimon mocked him. The ugly man then responded: why not go to the Artisan who made me and tell him “how ugly is the vessel You made.” Rabbi Shimon realized that he spoke cruelly, forgetting that God is the final arbiter of disability, and begged the man for forgiveness.
What the story teaches us is that God is the artisan that made all men, some ugly and some beautiful, and physical appearance has little or nothing to do with the way God sees us. God relates to what is inside, not to what is on the surface. This reflects how we should relate to the disabled, not with insensitivity, but with compassion and love, recognizing that we all are created in God’s image. Homer’s story in The Best Years of Our Lives reminds us to treat all people, and especially the disabled, with kindness, with respect, and with love.